Tuesday, January 18, 2011
62. Blackie Schwamb: Major League Murderer!
So after spending a much needed vacation with my mother and brother back in Jersey City, I figure it's time to get back to featuring some more great ballplayers and their stories. While home, I found a book I had given my father a few years ago called "The Wrong Side Of The Wall" by Eric Stone. I found out about the book through the SABR (Society Of Baseball Researchers) newsletter a few years ago. Stone brilliantly tells the story of Blackie Schwamb, pitcher for the 1948 St. Louis Browns who also happened to be a murderer. Stone's book has it all, 1940's L.A., mobsters, life in the low minor leagues, crime solving and attempts to redeem a life that once held so much promise. My story today can only hold a candle to Eric Stone's wonderful book and I recommend everyone to pick up a copy - you wont be disappointed!
As a kid in depression-era Los Angeles, Ralph Schwamb earned his nickname "Blackie" because he dressed in all black to emulate the bad guys he rooted for in western movies. Taller and stronger than kids his own age, Blackie took up with the older neighborhood kids. Dividing his time between sandlot baseball and petty crime, Schwamb started drinking heavily as a teen, the vice that would eventually lead to his downfall in life. Coupled with his drinking problem Blackie had a volatile temper that he backed up with his fists. World War II came along and Schwamb landed in the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately the only action he saw was in various Naval brigs across the country because of his constant need to go AWOL, something he accomplished over 4 times. The need for manpower during the war usually lead the Navy to go lightly on a sailor who overstayed his leave here and there, but Schwamb took it to the extreme and eventually went on a bender and missed the departure of his aircraft carrier that was being deployed for overseas action. This borderline desertion in the face of the enemy was the last straw and Schwamb spent a few years in prison.
When the war ended Blackie drifted back to Los Angeles and quickly took up with the delinquents he'd known growing up. These guys had by now graduated to become full-time hoods and hustlers. L.A. at this time was booming with post-war prosperity and organized crime was right there to take full advantage of those untapped opportunities. One of the biggest syndicates was run by the colorful Mafia-backed Mickey Cohen. A few of Blackie's buddies were connected to Mickey and the six and a half foot Schwamb began a career as an enforcer for his gang.
Working for Cohen was an easy job, intimidating and occasionally beating the hell out of deadbeats who were slow to pay off their gambling debts. Schwamb spent his spare time hanging around a ball field with his buddies drinking and watching the semi-pro teams that played there. Schwamb was always a natural athlete and after hanging around the field for some time, he worked up the courage to ask for a chance to play. From the start Blackie was a natural. His height and strength made him an overpowering pitcher. He had good control and liked to win and soon scouts from the big leagues took notice. St. Louis Browns scout Jack Fournier liked what he saw and his report read in part "he's a screwball, but he can pitch." $600.00 bought Schwamb's signature on a Browns contract. Shortly afterwards Blackie found out that the Cleveland Indians were about to offer $37,500.00 for him.
Blackie breezed through the Browns minor league spring training and was Schwamb was farmed out to South Dakota to the Aberdeen Pheasants of the Class C Northern League. Before reporting he was picked up on a burglary rap, but released. Through half the season he posted a record of 5 wins and no losses and an E.R.A. under 2.00. In one game he even fanned 14 batters. But his erratic behavior and drinking finally caused the manager Don Heffner to ask the Browns to reassign the ace of his pitching staff to another team. That he was messing around with a local 16 year-old girl didn't help much either. Schwamb now found himself at the other side of the country in the Arizona-Texas League.
The Globe-Miami Browns were a team of has-been misfits, a dead-end. But the wild west atmosphere of the towns that fielded teams in the league were more to Blackie's temperament than the conservative South Dakota. Still, even in this rebellious environment Schwamb stood apart. Reporting to the ballpark for the first game of the league playoffs, Schwamb was so intoxicated he was not allowed into the locker room. Now pissed off as well as drunk, Schwamb climbed up the center field flagpole and started hurling expletives at players and fans alike. It took the local cops to get him down and Blackie was tossed in jail. The Browns suspended him and it was the right thing to do. However the team was trying to win the league championship and Schwamb was reinstated after he apologized to the team. He promptly won 2 games and saved a third to win the championship. Schwamb might be a screwball, but he was good.
After spending half the off-season playing ball in Mexico and the other half breaking legs for the mob, 1948 found Schwamb with the Browns top farm club, the Toledo Mud Hens. The Mud Hens might have been the best club in the Browns farm system, but that wasn't saying much. they stunk. Schwamb drifted through the season with a horrible 1-9 record, but it was mostly due to no run support and fielding errors than his own pitching. Dispirited, Blackie's drinking accelerated and he stayed out all night long and sometimes disappeared for days between starts. Despite his record on paper, reports of his pitching were stellar and the parent club called him up at the end of July.
Wearing number 20, Blackie Schwamb pitched his first major league game at Griffith Stadium on Sunday July 25th against the Senators. He pitched a good game until he tired in the seventh and fielding errors did him in. The Browns eventually won but he was not the pitcher of record that day. Discipline-wise he continued where he left off in Toledo. Schwamb didn't just violate curfew, he disregarded it all together by staying out until breakfast time. Manager Zack Taylor ran a loose ship and the players did pretty much whatever they wanted. For a guy like Schwamb who desperately needed discipline and someone to look after him, this was the wrong team to have been playing for.
On July 31st he registered his first win and the post-game celebration never stopped. Blackie was continuously intoxicated. Beer before and during the game and an upgrade to whiskey afterwards. He got clobbered in his next start and a few days later the lowly Philadelphia Athletics handed Schwamb his first loss. Tired of his drinking, gambling and brawling, manager Zack Taylor relegated him to the bullpen.
Relief pitching in 1948 wasn't the specialist position it is today. Most relief pitchers back then, with a few exceptions, were has-beens or guys that just didn't have the stamina to go the distance. Pitchers in 1948 prided themselves on starting a game and seeing it through to the end. To Blackie Schwamb, being sent to the bullpen was an insult and a major step down. He sat on the bench and fumed. In nine innings he'd polish off a case of beer. During batting practice he'd knock his own teammates down with brush-back pitches. The games he managed to get into he was drunk and got hit hard. Although he had a few drinking buddies on the Browns, most stayed away from him. He was different. Dangerous. You could sense it.
On the Browns last road trip of the season Schwamb showed up at the railroad station totally bombed and after fighting with a teammate had to be physically strapped into his sleeping car bunk with some of the players belts to dry out. Taylor had enough and suspended Blackie for the rest of the season.
Schwamb was invited back to the Browns spring training camp the next year. Consensus among the big-wigs in St. Louis was that Schwamb had limitless talent but that he was rushed up to the majors too fast. He clearly needed more seasoning so he was sent off to Baltimore. Schwamb, who should have been thankful for not being banned from the organization, regarded the assignment as an insult. He told the Browns he was through with them. They did something major league teams hardly ever did then or now: Blackie Schwamb was given his outright release and sent on his way.
Schwamb called in all his favors. As crazy and scary as he was, Schwamb still managed to befriend a fairly large number of players and before long something turned up. The Little Rock Travellers needed pitching and Schwamb signed with the team to much fanfare in the local press. Schwamb was a real major leaguer and much was expected of him. Most said it was just a short time until he got the call up to the big leagues again. Unfortunately Schwamb spiraled out of control. After being shelled in his 3rd game with the Travellers he stood on the mound, drunk and swearing at everyone within earshot. The manager sent him to the showers. Blackie stormed off the field and tore up the locker room and deserted the team. Little Rock gave Schwamb's contract back to St. Louis. They were finished with him.
Blackie drifted back to Los Angeles. He was still a well known as a ballplayer back there and the odds were pretty good he'd be playing ball somewhere again in 1950. All he had to do was bide his time until spring and keep his nose clean. He didn't.
Hooking up with a bunch of hood he'd known growing up, Schwamb took part a series of badly planned heists. Starting out by knocking over a few illegal card games the gang graduated to armed robbery. They held up two hotels and liquor store before they were caught. Out on bail the night of October 12th, 1949, Blackie was sitting in a tavern called The Colony Club drinking himself to Palookaville when his old buddie Ted Gardner and his wife Joyce showed up accompanied by a tipsy doctor from Long Beach named Donald Buge.
Dr. Buge was spending the night out on the town with his wife at the Normandie Casino when he made the acquaintance of the Gardner's. Sensing an easy mark for a quick robbery, Ted convinced the doctor to go for a ride with him and Joyce. They stopped off at the Colony Club. Inside sat former major league pitcher Blackie Schwamb. Dr. Buge bought a round of drinks and then asked for a ride back to the Normandie where his wife was. Schwamb came along for the ride, he knew what was going down. They were going to roll the doctor.
What happened next was never adequately solved. The only consistent part of all three participants story is that they all claimed the doctor started getting frisky with Joyce Gardner during the car ride back to the casino. What is known is that somehow Dr. Buge was brutally beaten to death in a vacant lot. Police reports stated that first Dr. Buge was relentlessly punched in the face, his nose and jaw smashed, teeth were broken and knocked out and his eyes beaten shut. He was then kicked several times and left for dead. The doctor was still alive for an unknown period of time until the blood pouring from his wounds finally filled his lungs and he drowned.
Schwamb went home and slept off his bender. Hungover, he appeared for his arraignment for those outstanding burglary charges. For once Blackie caught a break, two of the charges were dropped. The remaining one had the possibility to get thrown out as well. But the cops were quickly closing in on the killers. Ted and Joyce Gardner were a fairly well-known couple around town and they were picked up on the morning of the 14th. It took Ted a matter of hours to finger his pal Blackie and by nightfall Schwamb was locked up.
Beating a man to death is a whole other crime than simply shooting someone. Sure, you have to be determined and devoid of any shred of caring or compassion to pull the trigger, but in order to beat someone to death you have to get intimately close to the victim. It takes a whole different type of person to do that. With that logic in mind, along with pal Ted Gardner's testimony fingering Schwamb as the killer, Blackie was sentenced to life in prison.
Schwamb was sent off to San Quentin where his arrival was met with enthusiasm by its baseball team. Blackie thrived in this environment and before his parole in 1960 he'd won 131 games and lost 35. This tally includes no less than 3 no-hitters and many of those wins were against top-shelf semi-pro teams stocked with major league players. Blackie's reputation was such that scouts would bring prospects to play San Quentin to see how their boy would do against Schwamb.
Upon his parole in 1960, Schwamb received a few offers from major league teams to try out again. After much haggling, the powers that be that ran organized baseball decided Blackie could play ball, but only after one season of semi-pro ball to make sure his behavior on and off the field was acceptable. He reluctantly complied and by the spring of 1961 Blackie Schwamb was a member of the Hawaiian Islanders, the Los Angeles Angels top farm team. It was the comeback of the century, a story fit for the big screen. But it didn't last. The Islanders were a terrible team owned by another terrible team. Schwamb, despite his best efforts, could do no better than 1 win and 2 losses and he was released after appearing in 6 games. Blackie drifted back to California again, floating up and down the coast from job to job. He was even sent back to jail after being found with a handgun, although he only did one years time - he could have been sent back for the remainder of his original life sentence.
Eventually Blackie found a certain peace in life, living with a woman he met while working a warehouse job and becoming a proud step-father to her daughter. Racked with lung cancer, Blackie Schwamb, former St. Louis Brown and convicted murderer, died four days before Christmas, 1989.